After You Die ~ Eva Dolan

cover77357-mediumTwo years ago I reviewed Long Way Home, Eva Dolan’s first novel featuring DI Zigic and DS Ferreira of the Peterborough Hate Crime Department, and heaped on it the praise I felt it so justly deserved.  The only concern that I voiced was whether or not it would be possible to ring the changes sufficiently given that the motive behind the crimes that they encountered was likely to be similar in each case. I need not have worried. Long Way Home tackled the exploitation of immigrant labour. Since then we have had Tell No Tales, which dealt with issues to do with right wing extremism and now, at least initially, it seems that behind the murder currently under investigation may lie prejudice against those who are disabled.  It is, to say the least, disturbing to realise just how wide the brief is of those who investigate Hate Crimes.

After You Die occurs some months after the conclusion to the enquiry detailed in Tell No Tales and Mel Ferreira is now back at work after the horrific injuries she suffered in the course of that investigation.  Inevitably matters have been let slip while she has been recovering and so when the first news comes in of the death of Dawn Prentice and her disabled daughter, Holly, Mel’s immediate response is to question whether or not she is at fault.  The previous summer Dawn had made a number of complaints about harassment she and Holly were suffering as a result of Holly’s recent paralysis.  Although they were followed up at the time, Ferreira now wonders if she shouldn’t have pursued the issue further, even though the complaints tailed off.  But, as the investigation progresses, it begins to look as though the focus of the attack has in fact been Dawn and that whoever killed her assumed that Holly would be found while she was still alive.  Attention shifts to those who might have wished the woman harm, including her ex-husband and a number of men she has met through internet dating sites.

There is also, however, the question of why eleven year old Nathan, the foster child of Dawn’s friend Julia, has suddenly taken off into the blue.  He was a frequent visitor at the house.  Has he seen something that has scared him?  Why is no one willing to talk about his background?  Is it possible that Nathan himself committed the crime?  DI Zigic finds himself blocked at every turn as he tries to discover what it is about the youngster’s history that makes those who should be supporting the investigation refuse to co-operate.

There are several issues currently in the public eye raised in the course of this novel.  There have been a number of cases in the news recently where the police have not followed up on reports of harassment and as a result the complainants have been terribly injured or even killed.  The question of the evil that is internet trolling is also explored.  Ultimately, however, it seems to me that what this book is really concerned with is the vulnerability of children, both physically and psychologically, and the terrible damage that can be done to them, deliberately or otherwise, by those adults who are careless of their well-being.  Children proliferate in this story.  There are Zigic’s two boys as well as his unborn daughter.  In addition to Nathan, Julia fosters a second child, Caitlin, and is pregnant herself.  Then there is, of course, Holly, and also Benjamin, the son of the woman her father is now living with.  Not all of these children are innocents, but for the most part those who prove to be capable of acts of violence have been shaped by the adults they have encountered earlier in their lives.  Our children become the people that we help them grow into and if the significant adults in their lives (including those in authority who should take lasting care of them) abuse them either physically or through neglect, we have to recognise that there will be consequences.

This is a very accomplished novel.  I knew when I first encountered Eva Dolan that I would want to read whatever she wrote next and subsequent books have only reinforced that opinion.  Her characterisation has always been strong.  What is noticeably developing is her ability to offer a plot with clear lines of development and a strong underlying theme.  I very much look forward to the next novel in the series.

(With thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Harvill Secker who made this available for review.)

My Name Is Lucy Barton ~ Elizabeth Strout

41yYCG48DSL__SX336_BO1204203200_-203x300Very very rarely you come across a book that is so close to perfection that writing about it yourself seems like an act of sacrilege.  Having just finished Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, all I want to do is hide myself away and think about the enormity of her achievement in a book that runs to only two hundred pages and which my e-reader tells me can be read in just over an hour.  But, if I do that then how can I spread the word about a work that I want everyone to read?  So, almost reluctantly, I will try to give you some idea of the immense depth of human emotion that Strout is exploring in this small miracle of a novel, without trespassing too much on the work itself.

Lucy Barton is a writer and in this book, her book, she reflects on an incident many years earlier when she was unexpectedly hospitalised for nine weeks. During this time her mother, whom she has not seen for many years, visits her for five days.  The relationship between them is taut with unexpressed, unrecognised emotions, most particularly with a love to which neither of them can give voice.  Here, then is one of the subjects that Strout offers for our consideration, the relationship between mother and daughter.  What, she asks, is the extent of a mother’s responsibilities towards her daughter?  More pertinently, perhaps, to what extent is a daughter’s sense of identity shaped by her mother.  For the other important question that the author raises in the book is that of where our sense of identity comes from.  How do we develop a sense of self, a sense of our place in the world?

Strout explores many possible answers to this, answers which range from external signifiers:

the clothes I wore were me

through measuring ourselves against others:

I had never seen children going into Jeremy’s apartment.  Only a man or two, or sometimes a woman.  The apartment was clean and spare: A stalk of purple iris was in a glass vase against a white wall, and there was art on the walls that made me understand how far apart he and I were

to the ways in which others treat us.

And this is yet another area of concern for Strout: the way in which someone can be diminished in their own eyes by the disdain of another human being.

I was standing one day on the front stoop, and as he came out of the building I said, “Jeremy, sometimes when I stand here, I can’t believe I’m really in New York City. I stand here and think, Whoever would have guessed?  Me! I’m living in the City of New York!”

And a look went across his face – so fast, so involuntary – that was a look of real distaste.  I had not yet learned the depth of disgust city people feel for the truly provincial.

Strout develops this particular question further, not only considering the ways in which one person might feel superior to another but also the perhaps more interesting question of why such a feeling of superiority is so important to us.

I have said before.  It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people.  It happens all the time.  Whatever we call it, I think it is the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

And as Lucy knows, the effects of such a put down can be out of all proportion to the words spoken: a tiny remark and the soul deflates.  

Lucy has fought hard to establish and maintain her own identity.  What becomes apparent as we read about her life is how difficult this can be and what terrible costs can be exacted as a result.

Like many readers, I first came across Elizabeth Strout’s work when Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize.  What struck me then about her writing and what is even more apparent in this latest work is her ability to say more that is true about character and emotion in half a dozen lines than most writers manage in a similar number of chapters.  I loved Olive Kitteridge, as I have loved her other three novels, but for me My Name is Lucy Barton outstrips all of them.  I will not read a better book this year.

Sunday Round-Up

e2191505c671674fab7f119e0ae8ab3fWell, I have to say that I am feeling rather better about myself this weekend than last having had a successful first week on my Dickens course and not too bad a week in the book world otherwise either.

Dickens

The Dickens course got off to a flying start with a week looking at representations of the city in literature of the period up to the early nineteenth century.  I got myself worked up into a lather over the constant depiction of the city as a place of sin, mainly because I wanted to know who decided what constituted a sin and I’m afraid I rather lowered the tone of the discussion board by quoting the opening lines of Michael Hurd’s canata for children Jonah Man Jazz.  Do you know it?  The opening goes:

Nineveh city was a city of sin,

The jazzing and the jiving made a terrible din,

Beat groups playing rock and roll,

And the Lord when he heard it said, “Bless my soul”.

I wanted to know whether or not it would have been a different matter if they had been singing Bach cantatas.  It seems to me that in a lot of the cases that were coming up for discussion the question wasn’t one of sin but of the maintenance of the current power balance: People A saying to People B, “Your behaviour threatens our hold on power, therefore your behaviour is sinful. Yippee!  That means we can legitimately wipe you out”.

We haven’t got far enough for me to argue the specific case yet, but I don’t think Dickens thought of the city as sinful per se.  Rather it was the institutions that were embedded in it that concerned him and that is certainly an issue to do with power.

Reading

I haven’t got through quite as much reading as I’d hoped, but at least it is underway.  I’m halfway through Oliver Twist and find myself thinking yet again about the disservice that adaptations can do to a book.  OK, I love the musical, Oliver,  but really it doesn’t do much more than pay lip service to the original.  I think there was a rather more recent television dramatisation.  I must try and get hold of a copy of that.  The prescribed editions of Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend arrived on Friday.  They weigh in at around 800 pages apiece!  I am going to have to put some serious reading time to one side.  The required edition of Oliver Twist is out of print. Naughty!!!

Otherwise, I have finished Sarah Hall’s latest novel Wolf Border,  which I thought was a very good read but didn’t actually deserve quite the level of praise I’ve heard for it.  Certainly, I don’t understand why there were calls for it to be on the Booker list.  Nevertheless, I shall go back and read her earlier work and I’ve added her to my list of authors to explore when I want something that isn’t going to be particularly taxing.

Having taken that back to the library my late evening reading has been the most recent Rennie Airth crime novel, The Reckoning.  I wonder if you’ve come across Airth.  He publishes only infrequently, but I think this series, centred around John Madden, once of the Metropolitan Police and now a farmer who still gets caught up in police affairs, is excellent and that Airth certainly deserves to be better known.   The earlier novels are set in the interwar period and during WWII, but this one takes us just beyond, into 1947. Compared with most police procedurals they are quite books, but full of psychological insight.  If you like Laura Wilson’s Stratton series then you will enjoy these.

Prologues and Epilogues

Completely coincidentally, given what I posted about on Wednesday,  I was at a seminar session this week led by Tiffany Stern concerning the beginnings and endings of Early Modern plays.  She was asking which items should be included when she prepares a new edition of a play.  Prologues and epilogues yes, but what about things like trumpet calls?  And which dances are part of the end of the play and which are a completely separate entity?  It is a difficult question.  I can explain what is happening linguistically, but knowing that it’s a question of what is a separate particle and what is part of a shared wave doesn’t help the desperate editor.  She did, however, offer another example of an epilogue appearing at the beginning of a play, although in this instance it never pretends to be anything other than the epilogue.  In the printed edition of John Mason’s play The Turke, the epilogue is on the left hand side of the page as the frontispiece is on the right.  Just to make sure that the reader knows that this isn’t a case of the printer not knowing what an epilogue is the hard pressed workman has included the note,

This epilogue should have been printed at the end of the book but there was no spare place for it.

Apparently, Mason got it to the publisher so late that all the other pages had already been set and the only possible place to put it was on what is normally a blank page right at the very front.

These writers!  You can’t rely on them for anything!

Summer School August 2015

DSC_0803As some of you know, every year I run a Summer School for a group of friends who, like me, can’t afford to attend any of the more formal literary gatherings that take place during the summer months. About this time of year I offer them five sets of books, each set being linked by a different theme, and ask them to choose the one they would most like to spend a week discussing. There are three books in each set so when the Summer School comes round we meet three times during the week, each meeting being hosted by a different member of the group and the discussion being led by a different participant. That way there is no real burden of preparation, other than reading the books, on anyone and the only cost that we incur is 50p a day that we contribute for tea and biscuits. It works extremely well. This will be the sixth year we’ve run it.

The forms for book selection will go out next week and this year participants will be asked to choose from amongst the following:

Musical Interlude

The Travelling Hornplayer ~ Barbara Trapido
Bel Canto ~ Ann Patchett
An Equal Music ~ Vikram Seth

The Perfect Spy

Sweet Tooth ~ Ian McEwan
Spies ~ Michael Frayn
Restless ~ William Boyd

Brave New Worlds

Brave New World~ Aldous Huxley
The Sparrow ~ Mary Doria Russell
Station Eleven ~ Emily St John Mandel

Resurrecting the Past

Remarkable Creatures ~ Tracy Chevalier
A Month in the Country ~ J L Carr
The Dig ~ John Preston

Walking The Royal Mile

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ~ Muriel Spark
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox ~ Maggie O’Farrell
One Good Turn ~ Kate Atkinson

I’m always glad that I don’t get a vote as to which of the groups we’re going to read because of course I never offer books that I don’t want to spend my summer with and I would be very hard put to choose between these sets. However, I’m sure you’ve got thoughts as to which would top your list if you were joining us and I would love to hear what those are. It would be fascinating to see if your overall choice matches up to those who will actually be coming to the Summer School.

Summer School Book Three: The Lieutenant ~ Kate Grenville

The-LieutenantThe Lieutenant is the middle book in Kate Grenville’s trilogy about the foundation of colonial Australia.  Unlike the two books on either side of it, which follow the fortunes of the Thornhill family in the early years of the nineteenth century, this novel is set in the late seventeen hundreds and is based on the true life story of William Dawes, who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788.

Like Dawes, Grenville’s Daniel Rooke is a marine who has been assigned to this expedition on the strength of his abilities as an astronomer. Tasked with recording the expected reappearance of an historical  comet, Rooke is allowed to build himself an isolated hut to act as an observatory. This suits him very well as from childhood he has been something of a loner and he is ill at ease in the company of men who seem to take a delight in casual violence.  His isolation also means that he is able to begin to build a meaningful relationship with the Cadigal people, the original inhabitants of the Botany Bay area, and gradually to explore their language.

Given my background, inevitably it was the discussion of language that first attracted me to this novel when it was published in 2007. Using only the notes that Dawes made in his original journals, Grenville gradually strips away all the perceptions that we might have about how you learn to communicate with those who don’t speak your tongue: from the debunking of our common British strategy

the boy shouting at Rooke as though he would understand words said loudly enough

to Daniel’s more understandable attempts to systematically collect vocabulary and syntax.

[L]anguage was more than a list of words, more than a collection of fragments all jumbled together like a box of nuts and bolts. Language was a machine.  To make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts.

But learning someone’s language is far more than decoding the grammar and the lexis.

You [do] not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who speak it with you

and when Rooke strikes up a friendship with Tagaran, a Cadigal teenager, he begins to realise that to understand a language you have to also develop an understanding of the people themselves and of their culture.

What had passed between Tagaran and himself had gone far beyond vocabulary and grammatical forms.  It was at the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.

I was fascinated by how difficult some of the group found it to grasp this idea. After all, I’m the grammarian, the one who for years has made a study of the way the bits go together.  Perhaps it is because we are all of a certain age and were all taught languages in a very systematic way?  I don’t know.  I’m actually going to be discussing this book with a similar group later in the year and it will be interesting to see if there is the same reaction.

Other areas of discussion brought more unanimity, however.  Inevitably, Rooke’s friendship with the Cadigal comes into conflict with his duties as an officer in the marines.  As in The Last Runaway, the main character is forced to question whether or not he should stand by what he knows to be right or follow the path laid down by the community to which he belongs.  In Rooke’s case, this means deliberately disobeying an order and then having to take the consequences, which could extend as far as public execution.  We talked particularly about how he tries to find a way around his difficulties by telling himself that it will be all right to take part in the expedition to capture six of the Aboriginals because they will be too astute to be taken.  As Rooke himself eventually recognises, this is only playing with the truth and he has allowed self-interest to blind him.

If an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not, or how many clever steps you took to make sure it failed.  If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong.

Immigration was also raised again.  In this instance it came about through our discussion of Grenville’s involvement in the Reconciliation Walk when the people of Australia acknowledged the wrongs that have been done to the Aboriginals over the last two centuries.  Several members of the group had relatives who had emigrated to Australia and made it their homes, some two or three generations ago.  They echoed Grenville’s own words in respect of how those relatives feel:

[a]s “native-born” Australians, we’ve got nowhere else to call home.  If we don’t belong here, we don’t belong anywhere.

Grenville is in the same position as Mrs Reed in The Last Runaway.  As a fifth generation Australian she has lost her ties with the country from which her ancestors came.  The difference, of course, is that it is her own conscience that is suggesting that she has no right to be there rather than the voices of other immigrants insisting that she leave the country to them.  In the Chevalier novel the plight of the American Indians isn’t really up for discussion.

Finally, we felt we had to turn our attention to the way in which violence is justified by those who want power and can find no legitimate way of gaining it.  When Rooke goes on the expedition to capture six of the Cadigal people he discovers that he hasn’t been told the full story.  If six Aboriginals cannot be captured alive then they are to be slain and their heads brought back to the camp.

‘The heads, Rooke, were to be brought back in the bags provided.  Having been severed with the hatchet provided.  The governor’s argument was that it was necessary to act harshly once, in order not to have to act harshly again.  The punishment inflicted on a few would be an act of mercy to all the others.’

Just two days after the news broke of the murder of James Foley there was no way we could avoid acknowledging that our own history doesn’t bear close examination in this respect.  There is always an excuse, always a ‘good’ reason for acting in such an inhuman way, but no excuse, no reason can hide the fact that such behaviour is an act of barbarism, wherever and whenever it takes place.

This wasn’t, perhaps, the happiest note on which to end our Summer School but it did reflect the depth of thought that had gone on and the wide range of topics that we found ourselves engaged with.

Fool’s Assassin ~ Robin Hobb

fools-assassinTwo or three weeks ago I wrote about the phenomenon of the reading obsession and admitted that at various times in my life I had fallen prey to all-consuming bouts of reading from either the fantasy or crime fiction genres.  While I still go back to many of the fantasy novels that have been written for children, only two writers of adult fiction have stayed with me from those earlier heady days: one is Katharine Kerr, unfortunately no longer writing about the people of Deverry, and the other is Robin Hobb, who thank goodness still continues to keep her readers in touch with what is happening in the realm of the Six Duchies.

Last October I had the good fortune to hear Robin Hobb speak and when she mentioned that this year would bring a new novel which would take forward the story of two of her most loved characters, Fitz and The Fool, I admit that I offered up a quiet pray of thanksgiving.  For most readers who have walked the lands of the Six Duchies the boy Fitz will have been their first companion and together they will have suffered the highs and the rather more frequent lows of his existence as a bastard son of the eldest prince of the Farseer dynasty.  Through six novels they will have charted the course of his friendship with The Fool and many, like me, will have mourned when at the end of Fool’s Fate it seems as if the two would be severed forever. Now, eleven years and nine books later their story continues.

Quite deliberately, I went back and re-read the last two episodes in this duo’s story before embarking on the new novel and so what I was struck by most immediately was the way in which Hobb has been able to return to the narrative voice that we had become so familiar with in relation to Fitz.  You can move seamlessly from Fool’s Fate to Fool’s Assassin without being aware of the gap of time that has passed since these characters were last the focal point of the writer’s attention. Much, however, has changed in Fitz’s life in that time.  He finally seems to have found some measure of happiness with his old love Molly and together they have created a contented family home in the manor at Withywoods.  Most of Molly’s children appear to have accepted him into the family, even if, ironically, Nettle, the one child they have in common, still has difficulty acknowledging their relationship. Nettle herself now serves Dutiful as Skillmistress and that in turn has meant that Fitz has, to a large extent, been able to turn his back on the politics of Buckkeep that have dominated his life for so long.  If there are any regrets in his life they are that he and Molly have not been able to have a second child of their own and that there has been no word from The Fool.

And then Bee arrives, a child that neither Fitz nor Molly thought would be possible and one that for a long time the rest of the household think exists only in Molly’s imagination.  But there is nothing imaginary about Bee.  As soon as she is strong enough to hold her own as a narrative voice she shares alternate chapters with her father and we come to recognise what a remarkable child she actually is. Long before Fitz has any inkling we understand that there are elements of The Fool about Bee and so when word reaches Withywoods of an unexpected son who is in some way associated with The Fool and who is the focus of a deadly search by characters from his past, we are reaching for explanations that have yet to find a place in Fitz’s mind.

This book sees the return of many familiar and much loved characters: Dutiful, now King of the Six Duchies and his calm and dignified mother, Kettricken, Chade, still as conniving as ever and solid and dependable Riddle.  It is also filled with as much horror and pure cruelty as were the earlier novels, which makes me ask why I would return to the series as often as I do.  The answer to that question is best illustrated by what occurs between Riddle and Fitz towards the end of the book.  Forced to move The Fool as rapidly as possible to the safety of Buckkeep, Fitz draws on Riddle’s strength to use the Skill-pillars and in doing so, completely unintentionally, very nearly kills him.  Both Riddle and The Fool are moved to the infirmary and tended there.

The apprentice healer was back, a rag wrapped around the bale of a lidded pot. The lid jiggled as she walked, letting brief wafts of beefy aroma fill the room.  A serving-boy came behind with bowls, spoons, and a basket of bread rolls.  She stopped first at Riddle’s bed to serve him and I was relieved to see him recovered enough to be propped up in bed and offered hot food.  He looked past Nettle, met my gaze, and gave me a crooked smile.  Undeserved forgiveness.  Friendship defined.  I slowly nodded to him, trusting him to understand.

And there it is.  The reason I keep returning to the Six Duchies, because if these books are about anything they are about the importance of trust, loyalty and friendship.  You will meet a deeper and purer understanding of what friendship can really mean in these novels than almost anywhere else in literature and it is, I think, a gift that all of us can appreciate.  When the Wolf-Father, who may or may not be a manifestation of Nighteyes, explains to Bee about the importance of ‘pack’ it invokes echoes in each one of us.

For me this was a triumphant return to the world of Fitz and The Fool on Hobb’s part and I am left now with just one regret and that, of course, is that I have to wait for the next two episodes in this trilogy to discover how the story will progress.  I hope that wait will not be too long.

With thanks to HarperCollins who kindly made a copy of this available.